Innovation and Imitation

The example of the modification of cloze procedure referred to in the previous section is remarkable for the innovation it brings, as well as for the adaptation it involves of an available task type in language testing. It is perhaps even more remarkable that it was conceived of as an extension of an existing adaptation in earlier tests of academic literacy, that assess the ability to handle discourse demands within an institution of higher education. The further adaptation involved not only turning its format into a multiple choice task, but also adding another dimension: the ability to know which word belongs where. In that sense, in the later tests of academic language ability that came to use its adapted format (cf. ICELDA 2014: Sample test), it was an imitation as much as it was an innovation.

If imitation in design is possible, however, it would again appear that continuity rather than innovation is the norm. Yet it is acknowledged today that imitation often is the spur of larger-scale innovations. In fact, examples abound in other fields and industries. The columnist writing as Schumpeter in The Economist (2012) refers to such imitators as “Pretty profitable parrots”, giving as examples McDonalds that derived from the (still existing) White Castle outlets, and Chux, the disposable nappies that gave way to Pampers. In a similar vein, the ‘Gab’ column of Symanovitz (2014) in Finweek, entitled “Imitation is the sincerest form of innovation”, gives as example how Henry Ford conceived of the assembly line for his vehicles after being inspired by a meat packing process he had observed. Shenkar (2010), in his Harvard Business Review article, reprinted as “Imitation is more valuable than innovation” gives the further example of how the Chery QQ, based as it was on the Chevy Spark, went on to outsell the latter sixfold. He adds another point, that imitation is not limited only to business and industry: in several academic disciplines, “ranging from history to neuroscience ... imitation ... [was] a primary source of progress” (Shenkar 2010: 1).

As he also observes, imitation can never be enough, nor can it ensure success. Some additional, imaginative adjustment needs to be conceived. Copying on its own is inadequate; one needs “good imitation”, but that “is difficult and requires intelligence and imagination” (Shenkar 2010 : 1). To copy is not enough, therefore: an imaginative adjustment needs to be made to the design for it to be truly effective. For the language teaching design to stand out as new (as in the use of an information gap task), it needs to be imagined anew (for example as a learning opportunity, as in a TPR task, and not as an assessment procedure, as in its conventional Direct Method application). For an assessment design to be lifted from the humdrum of the conventional (cloze procedure) to an imaginatively designed new way of assessing the ability to handle “Grammar and text relations”, as in the subtest discussed above, intelligent adaptation is necessary.

We end up again with the observation that what guides and qualifies our design processes is the technical imagination of the designer: the fantasy to conceive of new plans. But we also have to conclude that the continuity in design that we observe calls for humility. Methods of language teaching and techniques of assessment that are liberating and empowering rather than ideological and ensnaring are scarcer than we might think. What is more, our responsibility as applied linguists makes us accountable for the whole of applied linguistics, even for those design styles among those that were described in the previous chapter that we contest. The continuities in our plans ihat are evident across all these iraditions mean that we cannot merely disown some, and focus only on what we prefer. There are more kinships in design than we might wish to acknowledge, and they cannot be ignored if we are to be truly accountable.

A creative combination of global insight and local knowledge, according to Littlewood (2014: 359), characterizes the current stage of a communication-oriented approach to language teaching that is worthwhile pursuing. Beyond the pleas for innovation and the acknowledgement of diversity that reflects local conditions, however, lies the realization that changes in language teaching and assessment design, when and if achieved, are incremental rather than dramatic. That realization has brought a reconsideration of design principles into the spotlight. The final chapter will deal with that more extensively.

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